PORTLAND, Ore. – This time, Darlington Nagbe did the coaching. And it couldn’t have worked out better.
The Portland rookie midfielder has been telling head coach John Spencer all season that he is best at the forward position. The advice paid off as Nagbe, who got the start at forward Friday after beginning the last three matches on the bench, scored the final goal in the Timbers 3-0 win over New England at JELD-WEN Field.
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“He keeps telling me his best position is up front,” Spencer said. “And I don’t think he’s wrong.”
Nagbe, who just this week was named one of MLS’ top players under 24 years of age, didn’t just make his mark with his header goal in the 66th minute. The speedy 21-year-old ran circles around the New England defense, pacing a sustained Portland attack that unleashed 20 shots, including six on goal.
“His movement was dynamic, lightning quick,” Spencer said. “From the first minutes of the game, he made a couple of runs and I could tell the back four were very wary of him for the rest of the game.”
Nagbe got his notch in the score sheet, his second goal of the season, when midfielder Kalif Alhassan found him in front of the goal on a cross from the left wing. Nagbe put his head into the ball and slipped it between goalkeeper Matt Reis and the far post.
“It was just natural,” Nagbe said of the forward position, a spot where he flourished in leading Akron to the NCAA championship last fall. “And I just went out there and did what the coach told me to do.”
Nagbe’s performance was part of an inspired offensive night from the Timbers. Midfielder Diego Chara and forward Kenny Cooper also scored goals in the victory, and could have added more if not for a stellar night from New England’s Matt Reis. All this despite the absence of forward Jorge Perlaza, who was been fighting illness all week.
“I think we played ever so well in the first 45 minutes,” Spencer said. “Some of the best football I’ve seen, not just from us but the best football in the MLS this season.”
Cooper said Nagbe adds a flare that not many other players can.
“You can just see, he has so many qualities on and off the ball,” Cooper said. “And he had a great all-around game tonight.”
The year for Nagbe has been somewhat of a roller coaster. He came into the Timbers’ preseason after being selected No. 2 overall in the 2011 SuperDraft, and nagging injuries kept him from finding his form throughout much of the first half of the season. His first goal, a juggling wonder on July 2 in a 2-1 loss to Kansas City, opened the league’s eyes to his potential.
But recently, he said, he’s been hampered with a touch of fatigue, ending a string of a 12 straight starts, mostly at the midfield position.
There was no sign of tired legs on Friday, though.
“I felt great. I felt like everyone had high energy,” Nagbe said. “I felt like those games off helped me get my legs back under me. And I feel fresh, so hopefully I can keep it going.”